Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

Fifty-one years ago this week I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah by reading this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. I often find myself telling the Bar or Bat Mitzvah students I work with, “Your Torah portion is yours for life.” And so it was with me as well; I always think of Mishpatim as “mine.” Literally for the last half a century, whenever I have heard the name of the portion, or taught it to my students, or seen the word written anywhere, it has instantly evoked a special bond, a sense of ownership, a special connection that is different than any other part of the Torah.

I love that I feel so intimate with Mishpatim. I love it because here I am, 64 years old in the year 2013, feeling a unique and inseparable link between myself and a book that is more than 3,000 years old. It’s amazing, really. The power of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience, the power of feeling that I belong to a community that stretches back thousands of years, the deep connection to an ancient past where, out of the remarkable creative spiritual mind of my own ancestors, there are ethical challenges that still echo with powerful relevance today.

The authors of the Torah seemed to have an absolute command of human psychology. They understood that our natural inclinations and the “normal” human response to those we think of as enemies is not only to stay as far away from them as possible, but to do whatever we can overtly or covertly to undermine them, defeat them, vanquish them any way we can. That’s why the Torah is filled with commandments that are put into the mouth of God (to give them clout and universal transcendent credentials). These commandments actually challenge us to act in ways that completely go against human nature and our natural inclinations.

It’s human nature that if you were to see your enemy’s ox wandering lost, you would smile with glee and either encourage it to get even more lost or perhaps simply open your own gate and let it “wander” in and become yours. That’s what anyone would do. So the Torah has God command us instead, “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.” Bummer. Who would want to do that? Really no one. Our natural instinct is to delight in the misfortune of our enemies, to even help their misfortune along if we can.

But Jewish ethics demand a different reaction, claim a higher standard, force us to do the right thing in spite of ourselves. As if returning lost items to our enemies wasn’t hard enough, the Torah then goes on to make an even more difficult and emotionally challenging demands. “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Exodus 23:5)

Not only are we commanded by God to help lift the burden from our enemy’s animals, we are commanded to “raise it with him.” It’s the “with him” part that really gets me. You mean it doesn’t even count if I do it quietly so no one sees that I’m helping my enemy? It doesn’t count if I do it on the sly, do it anonymously, secretly give aid to his animals without having to actually stand with the guy I hate and offer my help? Ugh. That is simply asking too much.

And yet, that is exactly what the Torah (and through the Torah what God) demands of us every single time. The highest virtue clearly isn’t to help our enemy in secret as an “anonymous donor.” It’s to step up in public, extend our hand to help the very person we would least want to help in the world. What a remarkable psychological insight – those geniuses who wrote the Torah so many thousands of years ago knew exactly what they were doing.

How do you really heal the world? What does “tikkun olam,” the Hebrew phrase for “healing the world” really look like? It looks exactly like this: one enemy extending his (or her) hand to another and helping ease his (or her) burden in life. Now that takes courage. That takes inner strength. That takes self-restraint. That takes faith that your enemy won’t attack you or cause you harm, or reject your offer. The Torah doesn’t care, it simply commands us to ease the burden of our enemy’s animals together.

It’s so simple, and so brilliant, and so difficult to actually do. Why must we do it together? Because the rabbis were convinced that the surest road to reconciliation among human beings who disagree or differ is to join together in a common challenge and help each other. The Talmud reads this passage and comments that God’s intention in this mitzvah is that, in the process of working together, enemies become friends. Recognizing the common sanctity in another human being in spite of our differences is the Torah’s formula for redeeming the broken fragments of our world.

Imagine if instead of always looking for ways to undermine and get advantage over each other, all the “enemies” on earth had to work together helping each other in common cause instead. What if Democrats and Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, Americans and Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, and every other group that sees another as “different,” or “wrong” in what they believe or because of the color of their skin, or the language they speak, or the culture they embrace instead lived according to the Torah’s commandment? We wouldn’t have to continue praying for the coming of a messianic age, for we would be living it already.

(Check out www.rebreuben.com , www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).